Fr Billy Swan
One of the richest and most profound aspects of Catholic theology is that of the communion of saints. On 1st November each year, the Church celebrates the bonds of communion in God between all believers whether they be here on earth, in purgatory or in heaven. On the feast of All Saints, we enter into a spirit of prayer for and in communion with all who have died, including those who left us a rich legacy of Christian witness. November is a month in which the Church invites us to remember the lives of ‘those who have died in the peace of Christ’ (From Eucharistic Prayer IV) as we recall their example and witness that never ceases to inspire us.
Yet by faith we know that our relationship with the saints is much deeper than one of memory or even example. We recall their memory of course but in doing so we are also reminded of our call to be saints as well. We feel connected to them, in communion with them, present to them. This union is expressed and felt above all at the Eucharist where our common life of unity in God coalesces in a visible and wonderful way. At the Eucharist we join with the saints in praising God where ‘their glory fills us with joy and their communion with us in the Church gives us inspiration and strength’ (From the Preface of Mass of All Saints, Roman Missal). It is here that we are most faithful to the deepest vocation of the Church and are reminded again of the beautiful truth that ‘the one who believes is never alone’ (Pope Benedict XVI, at Regensburg, 12th Sept. 2006).
Our communion and friendship with the saints is far more than their past and our present for it has the power to shape the future too. When we meditate on their lives from the past and enjoy their company in the present, we are also inspired by them to imagine a Christianity of tomorrow whose fertile soil will produce new saints for a new age. This sense of connectedness between past, present and future is all the more important and yet difficult in modern times with such diversity in culture and the rapid rate at which that culture changes. So, what then are the points of connection between the saints of the past, the present and the future? What common features will unite us to them in a deeper unity of witness to God and his love that spans the centuries of the Church of yesterday and tomorrow? Here I offer four suggestions.
Firstly, the saints of the past teach us how the Church of today and tomorrow must be rooted firmly in a Trinitarian spirituality. From the mystics of the Church, to the doctors, to her pastors and martyrs, the Church remembers those men and women whose lives were immersed in the communion of life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and who strove to mirror that communion in their families, parishes and communities. Their witness helps us to re-imagine all our creeds, sacraments, preaching and structures in the light of the love of God whose life we share. For the saints, God was not a distant deity but rather an all-consuming fire of love, a mystery into which they were absorbed and transformed. In the words of Francis Thompson: ‘To most, even good people, God is a belief. To the saints he is an embrace’.
We might scoff at the idea of becoming a saint for we constantly make up excuses like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I have too many sins’. But being a saint is not about being perfect of good enough. To put it more honestly, what we are really saying is that ‘I don’t want to be a saint’. I prefer to live in a kind of mediocrity, on one hand being at rights with God but on the other hoping that he doesn’t ask too much of me. When Peter pleaded with Jesus: ‘this must not happen to you!’ after Jesus predicted his suffering and passion, Peter’s struggle was not that he stopped believing in Jesus. Rather his struggle was with the God that Jesus was revealing himself to be. The same is true of CS Lewis on losing his wife and as he shared his sorrow in ‘A Grief Observed’. It wasn’t a case of him ceasing to believe in God. His battle was in accepting what God was asking him to let go of. Therefore, do we believe that God is calling us to be saints, not just in the future but in the present too? Perhaps the greatest thing stopping us being saints is that we don’t want to be. And yet, in the words of Leon Bloy, the only tragedy in life is not to become one. The whole purpose of our lives is to be united with God in love and to correspond entirely to God’s wishes. Holiness is about allowing God to live his life within us. This is what it means to be holy. To be a saint is to be holy. This calling is not the luxury of the few but the call of the many and a simple duty for all of us. What all the great saints have in common is a great faith in God’s choice of them because of his love of them, despite their failings and limitations. They were people who fell in love with God whose love they discovered and had pursued them all their lives. We are called to be like this too. To be deeply united with God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, the saints help us rediscover that Christianity is a religion of the human heart. God’s word that comes from Him does not echo into a hollow space but rather echoes within our human experience and conscience as being true and beautiful. This is because His word that comes from outside corresponds perfectly to God’s presence that is found deep inside our humanity: ‘All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice and follow me’ (John 18:37). Inspired by the saints, the Gospel invites us to immerse ourselves continually in the human condition in all its beauty and shadows. For St Theresa of Avila, when we pray, we place ourselves ‘in the presence of Christ and grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for his sacred humanity’ (Teresa of Avila, Life, 12, 2).
Thirdly, the saints were people of great love. Saints like St Francis, Thérèse of Lisieux, Damian of Molokoi. St Maximillian Kolbe and St Teresa of Calcutta were prophets who highlight the crisis in affectivity in our world today, or the lack of love. In a world that craves for true love and peace, these and other saints direct us to Christ and his eternal desire that we ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12).
Finally, the saints inspire us to be creative and bold like they were, in the face of every difficulty. Pope John Paul II, who became a saint himself, reminded us that: ‘The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments of the Church’s history’. History reminds us that God raised up many saints at times of crises who were undaunted by the greatest difficulties and whose courage opened new pathways for the Church to find a way forward. In challenging times let us remember their constancy, their commitment and their imagination that held onto God’s promises of doing a new thing, in a new way, in a new time (Cf. Isaiah 42:10; 43:19; 65:17; Revelation 21:5). Let us never weaken in our conviction of God’s saving action in the present and that we may have the eyes of faith to recognise new opportunities that emerge even from the rubble of our own failures.
In conclusion, it may be worth remembering that our Christian witness in the present age is never a neutral one. Just as we seek inspiration from the saints of the past so too will future generations look back on our lives and seek to be encouraged by the quality of our witness to the Gospel. According to Thomas Merton: ‘It is a wonderful experience to discover a new saint. For God is greatly magnified in each one of his saints, differently in each one. There are no two saints alike; but all of them are like God; like Him in a different and special way.’
If among our company future generations find ‘a list of generous men and women whose good works have not been forgotten’ (Eccles. 44:10), perhaps they will do so because of four features that unite them to us and to the saints who lived in previous generations: we were people saturated in the love and communion of the Trinity; we were a people whose faith spoke to human hearts; that we were a people on fire with love for God and neighbour; that we were a people whose love moved us to imagine a future that had already begun in the present. In this way the communion of saints will continue to enrich the one Church where all share in the love of Christ in a wonderful mystery that spans the past, present and future.